Sunday marked the 30th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China relations. But the citizens of both nations are not in much of a celebratory mood despite the pomp and fanfare of commemorative events. Maturity is hardly the right word to describe the state of Sino-Japanese ties. Opinion polls show the Japanese and the Chinese hold each other in low esteem. Both sides still carry the heavy psychological baggage of the past.
In quantitative terms, bilateral relations have expanded by leaps and bounds since 1972. Two-way trade has increased 90-fold, and the number of visitors has multiplied by a factor of 300. Japanese investment and assistance, which were virtually zero 30 years ago, have soared astronomically. Japan and China today play a major role in the global economy.
In qualitative terms, however, relations between the two neighbors remain at a low ebb, as shown by events of the past year. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s April visit to Yasukuni Shrine, the World War II symbol of Japanese militarism, provoked Chinese protests. Relations soured again in May when Chinese police trespassed on the Japanese Consulate General in Shenyang, China, to arrest North Korean asylum seekers. Dubious diet drugs and tainted vegetables from China have scared off Japanese consumers. And crime involving Chinese nationals has increased in Japan.
These and other developments have strained relations and tainted Japan’s image of China. An increasing number of Japanese now see China as a “threat,” not only economically but militarily as well. Prime Minister Koizumi’s plan to visit Beijing to mark the 30th anniversary of normalization went up in smoke. People talk of a “China boom,” whatever that means. Experience suggests it is likely to fizzle out.
The low quality of Japan-China relations reflects the feelings of distrust held by the people of both nations. They suspect each other not only because they are still haunted by ghosts from the past, but, more fundamentally, because the two nations have failed to design and develop a new relationship. In other words, they have failed to meet some of the important changes that have taken place, both at home and abroad, since they normalized relations.
The most fundamental change is the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which effectively nullified the “1972 regime” that brought China into the embrace of Japan and the United States. It was largely the force of geopolitics, not the surge of friendship, that took U.S. President Richard Nixon and Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka to Beijing in 1972.
The second change is the rapid democratization of Taiwan. In contrast, China maintains its one-party communist dictatorship by suppressing democracy movements. Memories of the 1989 military crackdown in Tiananmen Square remain vivid. Naturally, the Japanese have increasingly warmed to free and democratic Taiwan.
Third, the rise of a younger generation in both nations has taken the steam out of the drive to build “Japan-China friendship.” As a result, anti-Japanese and anti-Chinese sentiments have increased. In Japan, such feelings have bolstered the forces of populism.
Fourth, the psychological equation between the two nations has reversed as confidence has risen in China and fallen in Japan. In this sense, the Japanese and Chinese people stand at a potentially dangerous point where a clash of emotions, if it gets out of control, would send bilateral relations into a free fall.
The task of building a framework for a new Sino-Japanese relationship falls mostly upon Japan, which as yet has no China strategy to speak of. First, Japan needs to establish a clear-cut national strategy of its own. On that basis, the nation should develop a viable relationship of interdependence with China that meets the standards of globalization, and develop that relationship through practical cooperation.
The time to shout slogans of friendship from rooftops is long past. Instead of accommodating ourselves to Chinese needs, we should think and act on the basis of our own assumptions. Certain misunderstandings may be unavoidable given the asymmetry of Japanese and Chinese societies, but deteriorations in overall relations can and should be avoided through open dialogue.
The overriding need is for Japan and China to become good partners rather than bad ones. The two nations can be good rivals as well. Japan’s urgent priority is to revive its flagging economy. China’s challenge is to achieve sustainable and harmonious economic development. A converging of these economic interests will go a long way toward political stability and economic integration in East Asia.
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